O’Neil: College football cancellation talks highlighting hypocrisy of NCAA

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The viability of sports in present-day America comes down to whether you can build a thick enough firewall to insulate your players and teams from this country’s spectacular failure against the coronavirus. The conversation covers both professional sports and the NCAA.

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The NBA had to quarantine itself down in Orlando while the NHL did the same only up in Canada. Baseball is up and running, mostly, though we’ve seen two of the league’s 30 teams experience alarmingly widespread infections. The NFL is going to try the same approach.

Then there’s the particularly difficult question of college football, where the fall season was characterized as doubtful heading into this week. The Detroit Free Press flat-out reported the Big Ten was going to cancel its fall season on Monday morning, which incited a flurry of protest from football coaches across that conference.

I’m not going to try and tell you what’s going to happen. I think it’s unlikely college football will be played this fall, but there’s enough money at stake that might tip the scales in the opposite direction. What I do know is that this discussion has highlighted the single biggest underlying contradiction in college football: the players whose efforts fuel this incredibly lucrative, billion-dollar business are deemed amateurs. Student-athletes, as the NCAA loves to say.

This contradiction is hardly new. It has been criticized for years and was already under siege by legislation first passed in California that would prohibit the NCAA from restricting the ability of a college athlete to earn money from endorsements. In essence, it’s going to be illegal to keep players from marketing themselves. But the push to play college football this fall – even as the schools themselves have remote-learning and reduced in-person classes – brings that contradiction into even brighter relief. Why would you plan to have a college football season?

If your answer doesn’t start with, “Because it will generate a ton of money,” then you’re not being honest. It’s the only reason we’re having this conversation, and it also makes me wonder how ethical it is to let the players take on the additional risk that comes from playing in this pandemic so other people can cash those checks.

Yes, college football players want to play. Of course, the coaches want them to have that opportunity, and yes, absolutely, I want to watch, but colleges are not considering playing out of some charitable desire for a full college experience. They were preparing to play because of just how much the entire ecosystem of college sports in this country – not to mention the economic health of the television networks that fund this system – depend on it.

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with needing the money. After all, everybody does. Baseball is playing because it needs the money. Players and owners. It’s certainly why the NFL is preparing to play its season. But in college football it’s difficult to talk about the financial impetus without running smack dab into the contradiction that the players who’ll be generating that money won’t receive any of it in the form of a paycheck.

The reality is that five months into this pandemic, we haven’t reached the point where our colleges and universities can resume normal operations. That makes it real hard to advocate for NCAA football to begin its season without exposing the hypocrisy that the athletes playing this sport are significantly more than just students.

Follow Danny O’Neil on Twitter.

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